Movie Review: Trumbo (2015)
“Trumbo” is the fourth Hollywood feature film to tackle the Hollywood blacklist—after “The Front” (great), “Guilty by Suspicion” (meh) and “The Majestic” (blah). It’s also, ironically, the first to use the real names of the blacklisted.
John McNamara’s script is witty, director Jay Roach’s direction is zippy, but do we have too much fun? We're dealing with a dark moment in American history, after all; a kind that, growing up, I thought we’d grown past; a kind that, I’ve found, never goes away. Too many people are too willing to demonize others for power and advantage; too many of us are too frightened to do anything about it.
But I am grateful for the perspective “Trumbo” gives. This is from the first 10 minutes alone:
- Many Americans became communists because of the Great Depression.
- The Soviet Union was our ally during World War II.
- While the U.S.S.R. fought the Nazis, guess who didn’t? John Fucking Wayne.
That said, I would’ve begun later, with the 1957 Academy Awards ceremony, in which Deborah Kerr announces the nominees for Best Motion Picture Story, then the winner: Robert Rich for “The Brave One.” At the actual ceremony, Jesse Lasky, Jr., the vice president of the screenwriters guild, who had also written the screenplay for “The Ten Commandments,” immediately bounded to the stage to accept the award on Rich’s behalf, but in my version of “Trumbo” I would have left Ms. Kerr up there to act flummoxed, to hem and haw, and to suggest the Hollywood machinery grinding to a halt. The Academy, after all, had just given one of its major awards to a man who didn’t exist—or who only existed because of right-wing pressure and various forms of industry cowardice, and I would’ve augmented that fact. Robert Rich? Robert Rich? Robert Rich?
From there, I’d flash back to whatever year you’d begin. Maybe 1943 when Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) joined the American Communist Party.
The movie actually begins around 1947, when various post-war pressures, augmented by HUAC, the FBI and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), are coming down upon the Hollywood community like an iron curtain.
At the time, Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood. Also one of the wealthiest. His friend, Arlen Hird, a more committed communist, and a composite of several blacklisted writers (played in no-nonsense manner by Louis C.K.), comments upon this:
Hird: You talk like a radical but you live like a rich guy. .... I don’t think you’re willing to lose all of this just to do the right thing.
Trumbo: Well, I despise martyrdom, and I won’t fight for a lost cause. So you’re right. I’m not willing to lose it all, certainly not to them. But I am willing to risk it all. That’s where the radical and the rich guy make a perfect combination. The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.
Cranston practically twirls his moustache with delight with these lines but Hird gets the last word: “Just please shut up.”
That’s really Hird’s role: keeping honest a man who is: 1) too in love with his own voice, and 2) not a committed leftist, in Hird’s view. Those two factors also make Trumbo’s downfall tragic in our eyes. His bombastic voice is stilled for no real reason. His life is upended by pro-capitalist forces via anti-capitalist methods. They don’t let the free market work. More irony.
Actually, it gets worse, and this bears repeating: Under the banner of anti-communism, conservative Republicans attacked American movies, a massively successful capitalist enterprise. Hollywood was a brand that not only dominated the world but spoke almost completely to conservative values: family, democracy, cowboys, justice, happy endings. It was about absolutes (good and evil) over relativism. In its wildest dreams, the MPA could hardly come up with a better program than what Hollywood delivered 99.99% of the time. Yet MPA and others were stuck on that .01%. They couldn’t see the forest for that twig over there. No, not that one. The other one.
So after testifying before Congress as one of the Hollywood 10, Trumbo goes to jail, then can’t get work; then he works undercover, and cheaply, for Frank King (John Goodman), who runs his own B-movie operation, and who doesn’t give a crap for the MPA and HUAC. Goodman portrays him as a bat-wielding iconoclast, but I’m curious: Why couldn’t HUAC simply call him to testify? And do to him what they did to everyone else? I’m also curious why Trumbo didn’t try to write novels again, like “Johnny Got His Gun.” Not lucrative enough? Were screenplays his medium? Were novels too difficult?
The Trumbo/Hird relationship is the best in the movie, but when Hird dies, the chief internal conflict for Trumbo is within the family. It's not particularly satisfying. He’s breaking his back, almost literally, to provide for them under the worst circumstances, but eventually his teenage daughter, Niki (Elle Fanning), revolts because he’s not paying enough attention to her. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with her, but, given the circumstances, she comes off as a spoiled child.
From there, we get: Robert Rich, the battle between Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger over who will first give Trumbo screen credit, the end of the blacklist.
Moguls and shtetls
It’s a great supporting cast: Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Alan Tudyk as Ian McKellan Hunter, Helen Mirren chewing scenery as former starlet and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She brings to heel the studio bosses—all East European Jews—by suggesting that the shtetl, and anti-Semitism, isn’t so far in the past, particularly for powerful Jews who have corrupted gentile starlets.
“Trumbo” doesn't quite sing the way it should, but it's a good history lesson for those who need it. These days, sadly, many people seem to.